The Organic Purity Test

Brace yourself, gentle reader.  The time for confession is at hand.  I am coming out of the organic garden closet.

I have used Round-Up.

There it is.  The cat is out of the bag and Santa has lost his beard.  The Sho’ Nuff Sistuh is a poser, an imposter, a fraud, a charlatan, a mountebank.  She is the Mata Hari of the organic gardening world.

And yet.

And yet, with a straight and defiant face, I proudly continue to call myself an organic gardener because I am not only an organic gardener.  I am also an amateur restoration ecologist,  a proponent of a land management philosophy that seeks to re-establish native habitats not only in so-called “wild-lands” but in sprawling suburban wastelands and in urban micro-ecosystems.  Such work requires the removal, or in the very least the suppression of invasive and/or feral plant species that endanger (and in some cases have driven to the brink of extinction) native woodland, wetland, desert and prairie species.

I can wipe out most species of cool weather grass using an old tarp, mulch, newspaper, piles of oak leaves.   I can suppress late emerging warm weather grasses with organic pre-emergents or by cover cropping.  I can suppress many invasive herbaceous and woody perennials with  garden pruners, a good shovel, or if worse comes to worst,  an old fashioned fire.

But I challenge any organic gardener to face down kudzu with a bottle of  industrial-strength white vinegar.

Japanese honeysuckle and Himalayan olives are the nightmare invasives in my ecosystem.  Mulberries, though native, can also be aggressive beyond endurance.  Very rarely, and only after other mechanical means have proven a complete failure,  I use a sponge to apply a thin coating of Round-Up to the freshly cut stumps of these three species.

Every now and again, I try to explain to other organic gardeners the very difficult calculus that I, as an amateur restoration ecologist, must make to maintain my restored prairie and woodland habitats.  Which is more damaging to the ecosystem I am working with, Japanese honeysuckle or a narrowly targeted application of Round-Up?

Honestly, I have been on the receiving end of so many finger-wagging tongue-lashings you’d  think I had kidnapped the Lindbergh Baby.

I recall an absolutely surreal conversation I had with a Missouri Master Gardener who (having soundly put me in my place on the Evils of Round-Up) enthusiastically chronicled her progress planting 15 high bush blueberry shrubs in her Missouri backyard.  Having just finished roto-tilling 20 bales of peat moss into the soil, she was looking forward to a weekend planting the bushes, which had arrived by mail order from a certain reputable nursery in Washington state (that shall remain nameless).

I guess this Organic  Gardening Purity Test Policewoman thought that peat moss comes from the peat moss store,  not from critically endangered bog ecosystems.   I guess she thought her peat moss arrived in St. Louis Missouri from Northern Canada by petroleum-free solar powered tractor beam.  Which is worse for the environment,  my limited use of Round-Up or the jet-fuel burned shipping those bushes across the country?

By what metric do organic gardeners measure the absolute harm we deliver to the environment?  The choices we make about which acts of violence we will and will not commit are personal, political, economic and cannot be imposed by external arbiters of organic purity and environmental morality.

Meanwhile, it’s Fertilizer Friday at Tootsie Time; check out gorgeous gardens from around the globe.   I’m off to fertilize my tomatoes.

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8 thoughts on “The Organic Purity Test

  1. That gasp u may have just heard was me (followed by several hearty hoots, esp about the vinegar!) I have no Round-up confession to make but I hear ya. I’ve only been reading your blog a short while but your organic bona fides seem pretty sturdy to me. My prob with herbicides/pesticides is not just the “-cide” part but the “sooner or later they stop working” ish. But you probably know this, too, and I’m not finger-wagging, just saying. The NY Times science section ran a story this Tue about “ways to beat the weeds” which highlighted the struggle. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/16/science/earth/looking-for-ways-to-beat-the-weeds.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0
    PS, not crazy about the concept of “purity” anyway–very dangerous notion, as history sadly tells us.

    • Sho'Nuff says:

      You are absolutely spot-on about the “sooner or later they stop working.” This happens to also be true of biocides approved for organic use, something that the organic community doesn’t really seem all that interested in discussing. This is why my real emphasis on pest control is ecological (I mean, I will have four posts on ecological pest control tools compared to one each on mechanical and chemical pest control tools). Evolution trumps intervention every time. Cheers!

  2. I love how honest you are. So many people get so caught up in the minutiae of life that they don’t realize that their bullshit meter is in the red zone. I hate Monsanto but understand how you’ve used Roundup for the greater good. Not all plants are equal in their ability to heal our ecosystems. Kudzu is botanical ebola. It has to go!!

    • Sho'Nuff says:

      I hate Monsanto like Bubonic Plague too. GMOs (pesticide-ready GMOs especially) are a nightmare in the process of unfolding… and Monsanto *knows* it, IMHO. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve used the “sponge of death” technique on Japanese Honeysuckle in my yard over the last 12 years and still have fingers left over. The number of times isn’t a justification; it’s part of a *calculation.*

  3. We all have our own confessions and we can’t judge what one person does as we do not have their land and plants. I know I tried round up on the invasive weeds here and it never worked so we hand pull at this point…and my nemesis is horsetail…it is native of so much of the earth as it has been around since the dinosaurs…but it covers my gardens and cannot be killed except with very toxic chemicals…so I make my choice…I try to rip it up and use it for mulch…

    But you have to do what you have to do and let the purists be hanged.

    • Sho'Nuff says:

      There are many invasive species where hand removal is The Method of Choice because other means are too toxic, or the plants surrounding the invasive are too tender not to be harmed by the use of herbicides, even if the application is closely applied to a single plant. I agree with you. I wonder if horsetail is a type of cattail… Is it a wetland sort-of-thing?

  4. hoehoegrow says:

    Feels good to have a confessional ! I don’t think our British weeds have the same tenacity as yours, most of them are extremely polite and come up with a sharp tug !!
    Well, if we are confessing… I used a spray on my lilies to kill Lily beetle. There, I’ve said it. I only did it once and I only did it because hand picking and squishing was losing the battle. I’m not proud ! Now I’m back to ‘pick and squish’. I feel so much better for telling someone …

    • Sho'Nuff says:

      Thank you, thank you, thank you for joining me in truth-telling. I suspect there are more people who bend the rules of organic gardening. It simply is impossible to judge how others come to this decision.

      I’ve only been to the UK once… but I very much had the sense of a landscape that had been cultivated for so very long that its worst pests had long since been conquered. I never before met a gardener who claimed roses to be “trouble free” and easy until I talked to British gardeners. I thought they were pulling my leg. I guess America is a rude country, with rude people and equally rude weeds! It’s one of our selling points, I suppose! 🙂

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